Credit: Lynsey Weatherspoon / Courtesy of Salvation South
The Blind Man Runs
One of the South’s greatest musical treasures is a gospel singing group that has been around since 1939, called the Blind Boys of Alabama. The longtime leader of that group is, at age 91, retiring after a lifetime of singing. In this week's commentary Salvation South editor Chuck Reece reflects on a recent visit with the singer and a lasting memory of one of the singer's performances.
If I asked you to conjure the image of a blind person going down the street, what would you see in your mind’s eye? I suspect you would envision a slow-moving person holding a white cane, tapping it along the terrain to make sure they avoid any obstacles.
But have you ever seen a blind man run? I have, and it was one of the most joyous, inspiring moments of my life.
The running man’s name was Jimmy Carter. Not President Jimmy Carter. The man I’m talking about is the South’s other important Jimmy Carter, the man who for the last 40 years has been the leader of one of the South’s greatest cultural treasures: the singing group known as the Blind Boys of Alabama.
The blind Jimmy Carter is 91 years old now, but he was only 70 when I saw him run. It happened here in Atlanta at the Chastain Park Amphitheatre. The Blind Boys were in the middle of performing when one of the group’s crew members took Jimmy’s hand and led him into the aisle that encircles the frontmost seats at the amphitheater.
And the two of them started running, with Jimmy’s right hand locked onto the shoulder of the sighted man who led him. Jimmy followed, microphone in hand, singing every step. Stopping along the way to call on the crowd to join in on the refrain of a rousing, uptempo, old gospel song called “Look Where He Brought Me From.”
EXCERPT FROM SONG: “Look where he brought me from. Yeah, look where he brought me from…”
That amphitheater in Chastain Park is a very social concert venue. People bring their own food and drinks and set up elaborate picnics. And I’m sure they did not expect to wind up at something that felt more like church than a concert, but that’s where Jimmy Carter took them.
EXCERPT FROM SONG: “Lord Jesus, help me Jesus.. “
Today, 21 years later, Jimmy has decided it is finally time for him to retire from the Blind Boys of Alabama. Several weeks ago, Jimmy allowed me to visit him at his home in Birmingham, Ala. We talked about his career singing gospel music, about how an amazing group of sightless men in 1939 created an American cultural institution that was around before Jimmy joined it and will still be here after he leaves.
But mostly, we talked about the spirit that moved Jimmy to sing.
Driving home to Georgia, I remembered that night in Chastain Park, seeing a blind man in flight — overjoyed, singing, celebrating the spirit that had brought him out of darkness and into a marvelous light. My visit with Jimmy confirmed something I had thought for a long time — that even though he had never seen that marvelous light, in his heart, it shines brighter even than the sun.
You can read my entire conversation with Jimmy Carter of the Blind Boys of Alabama at SalvationSouth.com.
Salvation South editor Chuck Reece comments on Southern culture and values in a weekly segment that airs Fridays at 7:45 a.m. during Morning Edition and 4:44 p.m. during All Things Considered on GPB Radio. You can also find them here at GPB.org/Salvation-South and please download and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform as well.